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Phelps’ mom on motherhood, the Olympics

In her memoir, “A Mother for All Seasons,” Debbie Phelps shares how she overcame adversity and supported her son’s Olympic dreams. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

While her son Michael thrilled the world with his record-setting eight-gold-medal performance during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Debbie Phelps caught the public’s attention as she and her two daughters cheered Michael on from the stands. In her book, “A Mother for All Seasons,” she shares how she overcame adversity and supported her son's Olympic dreams. An excerpt.

Prologue: Team Phelps
With all the various hats I wear — as a woman and mother, an educator for more than three decades, now a middle school principal, and as a lifelong learner — I’ve never felt there was anything wrong with letting my emotions show when the situation calls for it. And that’s just as well, too, because I don’t think there’s much I could do to hold back my tears whenever I’m genuinely moved, humbled, proud or inspired — although I do seem to become a waterfall at the most inopportune occasions! These instances happen with such frequency that behind-the-scenes in our family and among fellow members of Team Phelps they’re affectionately referred to as “DP Moments.”

I’m pretty sure my amazing children — Hilary, Whitney, and Michael — all started calling them “Mom moments” early on: as in, “Oh, no, Mom’s got that look, here she goes, get out the Kleenex!” The name was probably diplomatically converted to “Debbie Phelps (DP) Moments” by Peter Carlisle of Octagon management — not only one of the most brilliant sports agents in the business but also someone who is very sensitive in his own even-keeled way. Or they could have been branded by none other than Bob Bowman — one of the winningest swim coaches of all time who plays a few roles on Team Phelps, including mentor and training strategist extraordinaire. Michael just calls him the “mad scientist.”

Of course, it doesn’t really matter who came up with the term because I’ve certainly been blessed with a great abundance of DP Moments — as I hope all of us have. And I love every one of them! What matters, I believe, is that we don’t take them for granted or let them pass by without stopping to embrace and celebrate them — whether it’s with cheers, tears, homemade decorations and elaborate festivities, or simply with silent appreciation.

I’m not just talking about the unbelievable peak moments when diplomas are received, wedding vows are exchanged, when gold medals are won, or when new life is brought into the world. I’m really talking about breakthroughs of all kinds — like those smaller, less publicized moments when limits have been pushed and life lessons have been learned. And to do this, we sometimes have to embrace those instances when we (or our loved ones or our teammates) fall short of our goals or encounter obstacles. After all, if we don’t acknowledge the disappointments and the tough times too, I don’t think we can ever fully enjoy the triumphs.


So there we were in Athens, waiting for start of the 400 meter IM as Michael finished his pre-race stretching. Whitney leaned forward, taking it all in. Not as openly emotional as her sister perhaps, she was equally as proud and as intense about the race that was about to begin. She and Hilary each had their own histories of high expectations as competitors, but now their focus was on Michael. It had been Whitney who in her teens had not only qualified for the Olympic trials in 1996 and 2000, but who had also set a standard of discipline and focus in the pool that raised the bar significantly for her brother. Did I wish I could have done something to help Whitney make it to these games as a contender too? Absolutely. Then again, I knew nothing in the world could take away the joy that shone on her face the instant Michael dove from the starting blocks to take an early lead in the first fifty meters of the butterfly.

I didn’t have a single moment of relaxation during this race — even after the split at the first wall put Michael a full-body length ahead of the field. While he was favored to win, the 400 IM is a notoriously challenging event that demands ultimate precision and leaves no room for error. Nonetheless, as he kept up his pace, I did start to feel a little bit of joyful confidence surface above the other emotions competing for my attention. I knew Michael had two factors going for him — his uncanny ability to know his body’s energy reserves, plus how and when to tap them to their utmost, and the fact that he had come armed with a gameplan, a master vision for each and every event. And he’d rehearsed these in his mind and in the pool over and over, finessed to a one-hundredth of a second.

The one glimmer of concern, out of all four strokes to be swum in the 400 IM — fly, back, breast, and freestyle — was the breaststroke. If any other swimmer could catch up with him from out of the formidable field for this event, the hundred meters of the breaststroke would be the only chance for another contender to surge ahead. You never really can predict the outcome of what’s often called a breaststroker’s race.

Because of the clear delineation of roles on Team Phelps, I was fully aware that Michael and the relentless Bob Bowman had a strategy to counter any potential vulnerability. Whatever that was, I trusted their planning implicitly. And in my role as the Mom on the team, my only job — as it had always been — was simply to be there with all my heart, all my being, and witness him come into his own, however that was going to play out.

Well, as basic as that sounds, when it came to making it to the Athens games as a spectator and cheerleader, there were a couple of close calls that almost stood in my way. The first of these had to with a potential work-related conflict that came up when I had to choose between accepting the offer of my dream job — being made principal of my own schoolhouse — or coming to the Olympics. There wasn’t even a second’s hesitation before I turned down the offer. True, I had spent close to thirty years in the Maryland public school system — as a teacher and administrator with experience in a wide range of demographics — working toward just such an opportunity. But at every stage of ascending the ladder in my career, family still came first. That balancing act wasn’t necessarily easy, however, particularly after my husband Fred and I divorced in the mid-1990s.

In time, I would come to appreciate the many lessons that I’ve been fortunate to learn as a single mom. But to deny the heartache along the way — for all of us — wouldn’t be telling the full story I’ve chosen to tell. In fairness not just to myself but to everyone impacted on some level by divorce — adults and children — I have to note that most marital breakups are painful. We were no exception.

Although turning down the job didn’t weigh on me in the least, I was very concerned about the failing health of my mother — or, as she was lovingly called by her grandchildren, Gran – who, at age eighty-five, was battling an aggressive, rare type of cancer. Two years before she had been told not to expect to live more than a few months to a year — a year-and-a-half tops. As the second-born of her four children, I should have known she would defy those odds. Still, I couldn’t avoid the thought of her being at a critical stage just as we were leaving for Greece. But no sooner did she settle into an assisted-living facility, her health and spirits rallied. Clearly, she was holding out for her dream to be realized — to live long enough to see her grandson swim in the 2004 Olympic Games.

Talk about setting a high goal! And as the overachiever that she was, she even went after it with style. With her energetic, vivacious personality, Leoma Davisson hadn’t wasted a second in becoming the social butterfly of the whole facility. As we got closer to Athens, not only was Mom doing well, but she managed to gather together all her fellow seniors to watch Michael swim in the meets leading up to the games. She even attracted local and national media who wanted to get the story of Michael’s grandmother and her Olympic highlights. If ever there was a member of Team Phelps cheering the loudest for Michael from a distance, that had to be Gran.

And so, there I was, in Athens, Greece, the home of the Olympics — where the games were born in ancient times — standing side by side with my daughters, with Peter Carlisle and Bob Bowman somewhere nearby among the twelve thousand fans who had risen to their feet, cheering thunderously as Michael indeed made history. Laszlo Cseh of Hungary took bronze and U.S. teammate Erik Vendt, in an outside smoke, won silver. Michael not only charged to victory with a final time of 4 minutes, 8.26 seconds to win his first Olympic gold medal but he also broke the world record of 4 minutes, 8.41 seconds that he had set during the Olympic trials in Long Beach in July.

Over the course of the Athens Olympics and the games of 2008 in Beijing, China, there were to be more and more highs to come. But the ultimate DP moment that sums it all up for me was there in Athens. It came after the race was over and Michael had begun his post-event routine — which included being greeted by his appointed drug tester and escorted to the mix zone for media interviews, then a warm down swim, followed by the medal presentation, a ceremonial walk, the actual drug test (part of an anti-doping campaign Michael has championed), and then more media.

During all that, because of the very tight security and Olympic protocol, Hilary, Whitney and I hadn’t gotten a chance to come together and embrace him — the family circle that was our personal protocol. But after the medal presentation, Michael walked toward the crowd and tossed the bouquet up into the stands to his sisters and me. In those seconds, we were able to exchange expressions of connectivity and pride. But no words had yet been spoken. Before we could actually talk, we had to wait for Michael to call Hillary’s cell phone and tell us where to meet him.

Her phone rang repeatedly during that time with calls of congratulations coming in from around the world. Finally, she answered and nodded, letting us know it was him. Michael told Hilary he wanted the family to meet him at the fence between the warm-down and the competition pools.

As we stood at the appointed location, looking through the holes in the fence, we watched Michael walking toward us, peanut butter jelly sandwich in his right hand, Coach Bowman to his left, and his first gold medal hanging around his neck.

Bob later told me that during the warm down swim, he looked over at Michael and saw something unforgettable. “Of everything that was still to come,” Bob recalled, “the smile on Michael’s face after the first medal has never been matched since. My first reaction was that nobody could be that happy. Michael was.”

I saw the same smile Bob Bowman described. And in that setting, as the sun went down in the sky, as he walked across the pool deck toward us, it was like visualizing all his years of swimming going through my head — chapter by chapter as if I was reading a book. Not just any book but a dramatic saga that promised many sequels. I saw him first as that little fun-loving boy, the one who was teased because of his big ears and who a teacher or two had said “would have trouble learning” — and a boy who never let a diagnosis of ADHD keep him from proving the naysayers wrong. I saw him in the pool at ten, starting to make a bit of a splash as he sped through the water in various events, then at twelve with gigantic plans and dreams, and then at fifteen with a vision all his own — always pushing past barriers, always extending his reach. And here he was, having accomplished what he came to do — to win one gold.

How did he feel? That answer was in his words when he pushed the medal through the chain link fence toward me.

“Mom,” he said, as proud as I’ve ever seen anyone, “look what I did.”

I held the medal in one hand, with Hilary and Whitney helping me, as Michael and his sisters shared in the moment too. We remained that way for as long as we could stand there, just like that, the four of us, and Bob Bowman beaming knowingly because he had seen this and more, long before any of us had. It happened, unusually, without attracting any photographers or autograph seekers. It was a private, cherished moment for each of us, one that is etched in my heart and on my sleeve forever. That’s a DP moment.

Though I’ve since talked about it in the media — especially what it meant to me and how there is nothing more glorious than witnessing a fellow human being attain a dream and be able to say, “Look what I did” — much hasn’t been told about the real journey required to achieve that shared moment. As everyone on Team Phelps will attest, it has been a wild, unpredictable ride, with dramatic ups and downs, heartbreaks, disappointments, recovery, reinvention, courage and tenacity, all of which made it possible.

In deciding to tell my part of the story, my motivation is not to “tell all.” Oh, my goodness no. As you’ll pick up, holding on to a sense of privacy has always been and always will be important to me. My own mother once lectured me for being too prim and proper. When my eighty-five year old mom said that I needed to work less and be more adventurous to have more of a romantic life, I turned enough shades of red that she called me “English” — her euphemism for being too straight-laced!

Where I am without inhibition and am definitely adventurous is as a mother for all seasons — there to give unconditional love and support during periods of growth and during struggle, offering humor, hope, common sense advice, and encouragement for all of our children and for each other. As a citizen for all seasons — of the United States of America and the world — I’m also adventurous in daring to believe that an Olympic movement whose time has come can enrich the lives of children, youth and adults around the globe. Talking about those subjects, among others, are some of the reasons I decided to undertake the challenge of looking back at the past as well as to the future.

But most of all, I made the decision to tell my story in order to share with you the discovery that I made only very recently — one that I hope can inspire and uplift you as much as it has me. It’s the simple truth that though life doesn’t always turn out the way that you planned, sometimes it can turn out even better.

Excerpted from “A Mother for All Seasons.” Copyright © 2009 by Debbie Phelps. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from William Morrow/an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.